Basant – a fading art from the cultural map of the world

BasantAs leaves begin to turn green from orange marking the end of a short winter, it is a strange thought that spring in Lahore in these recent years has become distinctly different from what we remembered in our childhood.

As a child, merely 10 ten years ago, the coming of spring was marked by an army of kites taking over the clear blue skies. So many kites there were in the skies, it became impossible to tell the birds and the kites apart. As a child, one did not know that the swarm of kites littering the skies was a part of a cultural festival called Basant. But it was indeed the best of times. The shouts of glee when a kite’s string was cut, the music and the dancing and the overall aura of joy and happiness; it was no wonder they used to say, Lahore Lahore hay.

But as with all wonderful things, Basant had to come to an end. As one grew older, one saw the presence of kites in the skies diminishing. The shouts of glee became distant. The overall euphoria of spring began to fade and it was replaced with the usual drill of the average routine.

Basant, the cultural kite-flying festival was not just limited to Lahore – even though the provincial metropolis led the celebrations. It was celebrated across Punjab, in cities like Multan, Faisalabad, Sialkot, Gujranwala and countless others. It was not just a source of entertainment for kite-flying enthusiasts, it was a means of livelihood for the kite-making industry.  During the hey-days of the Basant festivities, Pakistan as a country became famous for its kite exports, and kite-shaped memorabilia. Kites became an important element of Pakistan’s tourism industry as every year, hundreds of foreigners would arrive in time for the festivities.

At some point, however, the costs of the Basant festival became too much for the government to bear. The kite-string, deadly and sharp, became a source of several deaths – an average person stood in danger of getting caught unawares and being strangled by wayward strings. There were also several deaths caused every year because people celebrating on top of their roofs would accidentally fall off. Yes, Basant was marred with a few tragedies as well.

The Punjab government felt that the cost of the keeping the festival was much higher than the cost of banning it altogether. As per an order from the Lahore High Court, the Punjab government banned the kite-flying festivities. This provoked outrage and anger from a lot of quarters. Socialites likes Yousaf Salahuddin were of the view that if proper safety precautions were taken, there was no reason why the festival could not continue. This view was shared by thousands of kite-flying enthusiast. They believed that if motorcycles were banned during the event, a lot of lives could be saved from being entangled in the deadly string. They were also of the view that it was the string that was the problem, not the festival itself. Ban the use of the string, they said, not Basant. The government was also reminded of the economic importance of the festival, and how Basant had placed Pakistan on the cultural map of the world.

As with most things, the decision of the Punjab government was final. It was much harder to police kite enthusiasts from inadvertently claiming lives, the government said, than it was to ban the event and to conduct regular raids to ensure that the ban was being upheld.

It is perplexing, however. The solutions to the problems caused by Basant have been presented by the Basant enthusiasts themselves. They have agreed to be cautious, they have promised to remain vigilant in the light of stricter control of the festival. The government’s insistence to uphold the ban, then, makes no sense. Every month, the government spends millions of rupees from the exchequer on VVIP protocols, so we all know that it is no shortage of funds. It is unfair to deprive citizens of a festival that has been a rich part of their history. It is unfair to uphold ban without making any concessions, or looking at alternatives.

Pakistan as a country, and Lahore as the center of its cultural activities need joys like Basant to remind the world that Pakistanis are capable of more than just anger, protest, tears and pain. Pakistan is capable of laughter, of music, of immense talent in flying kites, and of simply celebrating life.

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